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First Century Poverty Tourists, aka New Testament Writers

I stumbled across an interesting debate today, on Rachel Held Evans’ Sunday Superlatives regarding the effectiveness and ethical interests of NGOs and ministries sending writers or successful bloggers to developing countries to report back and tell the stories of the organizations and the people they serve.

This practice already has a label: poverty tourism and a bevy of opinions in a hovering stormcloud.

Is it asking for trouble, exploitative or downright wrong for writers to experience a foreign culture, observe a work of assistance, training or sharing of the gospel to “the least of these” and to report from the field, telling the stories and providing a catalyst for a population to respond?

Kristin at Rage Against the Minivan includes an interesting quote from Shawn Groves who is involved in the blogger trips with Compassion International in her post. Shawn refers to the danger of poverty porn that “provides a titillating high for readers that results in no real change for them or the developing world”. I agree a writer-in-residence can ride an emotional tide, and take readers along, especially if it’s an initiation into poverty. Writers tend to be highly observant, emotionally sensitive and fairly articulate — all qualities that make them attractive to an organization. (The same could be said for those talented in photojournalism and film-making.)

Luke, the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles was, to my understanding not an apostle himself. He was a doctor and a gifted observer. He wrote to an audience unacquainted with the Jewish subculture, religion and tradition. He connected the lines for the “Gentile”. Why would a Gentile, a citizen or Rome consider joining “The Way” a strange, obscure Hebrew cult faction that idolized a crucified martyr? Why would they care? And, how would they know without being told?

When Luke wrote his second installment, the book recorded the Acts of the Apostles and the world-changing events like Pentecost, the missionary trips of Paul and Barnabas and the progressive ministry of the Jewish Christ-Follower, Peter.  Was Luke a real doctor or a surgeon? We don’t know. We know Luke was an acute observer and with a bent for journalism (this can be easily deduced by reading his two best-known works). He witnessed all manner of poverty and need and also, miracles and ministry. He traveled with Paul across the Mediterranean, risking his life and maybe worse, his reputation.

So, would Luke be a central character in this debate over the poverty tourism and blogging for ministry? Would his experiences and observations be criticized or minimized by those who would rather spend their 1200-word-limit on creating a feeding frenzy or distracting sleight of hand?

Maybe. Would that have made him stop? Would he shift the focus of his writing content to something more safe, lucrative or critically acceptable?

In hindsight, we can see that Luke was hooked up with a legitimate organization. But at the time…? This loose organization of new churches spread out over the desert towns and port cities of the ancient world was developing faster than the ink could dry on papyrus, but it was legitimized by:

Proof of changed lives

A sustainable model of ministry

Communities that embraced spiritual and social transformation

Ministers who repeatedly encouraged their far-off flocks NOT to conform to Jewish practices and traditions according to the law, but to continue onward in a life of faith, according to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the teachings of Jesus.

Maybe Luke was a prodigy of affluence, trained in medicine, philosophy and languages in the highest institutions of learning. Maybe he had no right to travel where he went or make any account of what he saw. If so, would he be guilty of providing a titillating high for his readers? Would he be a herald for justice and for spiritual, societal, governmental transformation? Would he be an inspired gospel writer?

I, for one, am grateful for his literary contribution.

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